Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Member, Whitehead Institute
Director, Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology
Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Uncovering what triggers dormant breast cancer cells to become active and cause disease recurrence.
The majority of primary breast tumors are successfully cured but delayed recurrence of disease – years or decades after diagnosis—occurs in as many as 30 percent of initially treated patients. A significant proportion of these relapses arise from cancer cells that left the primary tumor and seeded other sites such as the lungs, liver, bone marrow, and even the brain. These micro-metastases are “dormant,” in that they give no clinical sign of active disease. Dr. Weinberg is examining the biology of these dormant cells and the mechanisms that provoke their “awakening” and lead to breast cancer metastasis.
Dr. Weinberg’s research has shown that “awakening” of dormant cancer cells can arise under the pressure of an inflammatory state that supports their active proliferation. Dr. Weinberg and his team have developed an experimental protocol to awaken dormant cancer cells that have spread from the breast to the lungs. Unraveling this previously unclear process will provide a new understanding of how and why the awakening of breast cancer cells happens in patients who have seemingly been cured of their breast cancer.
In the coming year, Dr. Weinberg and his team will utilize their model of awakening to identify additional cell types that collaborate to stimulate dormant breast cancer cells. In addition, they anticipate being able to identify signals released by inflammatory cells that converge on dormant breast cancer cells and cause them to transition from a dormant into an actively proliferating state. In the future, Dr. Weinberg intends to develop a similar model to study whether comparable inflammatory cells collaborate to awaken previously dormant breast cells that have disseminated to the liver.
Dr. Weinberg is a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the first Director of the Ludwig Cancer Center at MIT. He is an internationally recognized authority on the genetic basis of human cancer. Dr. Weinberg’s team isolated the first human cancer-causing gene, the ras oncogene, and the first known tumor suppressor gene, Rb, the retinoblastoma gene.
Research in Dr. Weinberg’s laboratory is focused on attempting to elucidate the biochemical and cell-biological mechanisms that enable carcinoma cells in primary tumors to invade and disseminate, resulting in the formation of metastases in distant sites. Much of this work depends on analyses of the cell-biological program termed the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). In addition to conferring traits such as motility and invasiveness on epithelial carcinoma cells, activation of this program heightens their resistance to chemotherapeutic attack. In recent years, the Weinberg laboratory has also found that activation of a previously latent EMT program places both normal and neoplastic epithelial cells in a position from which they can enter into a stem cell state. In the case of carcinomas, the tumor-initiating powers resulting from this shift indicates the formation of cancer stem cells (CSCs), which are qualified to serve as founders of new metastatic colonies in distant anatomical sites. Dr. Weinberg’s research has increasingly focused on the interaction of CSCs with recruited inflammatory cells and on the later steps of the invasion-metastasis cascade that enables disseminated carcinoma cells to extravasate, thereby setting the stage for the formation of micro- and macroscopic metastatic colonies.
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